As we went down the hill, picking up our path among the thorny undergrowth, I felt quite happy. The children too were excited. They see these fields far down from their school playground every day. Some of those who worked in our school garden, the barber who came on weekends and the milk man were from this village.
It was a suggestion from a new teacher in the Social Science faculty that we should take the sixth standard students down to the village. As a part of the project work in Social Science, the students could go down to the village, meet some of the villagers and interact with the children in the village school and may be even meet the Sarpanch and interview her. I thought it would be good to sensitize the children about the lives of farmers and introduce them to the rural culture and traditions.
Our school was far away from the city, on top of a hill, overlooking a dam’s reservoir on one side and some expansive fields that extended to the horizon on the other. There was a lot of barren land too on the farther side of the fields and then there were rocky hills all around. Most of the villagers who lived in the valley were small time farmers. The only facility they had in the village was a school which had classes up to the seventh grade.
Our school driver helped us arrange everything and we took along with us a two tenth standard students who could speak both Oriya and Hindi fluently.
We crossed a sugarcane field and scrambled up a slope and reached the school ground. The headmistress came and met me. The school was worse than what I had thought. Actually, I would have been disappointed if it had been otherwise since the whole idea was to make our students realize that not many children were as privileged as they happened to be.
The school didn’t disappoint me. No classes had benches or desks and the blackboard was a rectangular dark patch on the wall and there was no way a straight line could be drawn on it. Most of the plaster had come off the walls and the only reason it didn’t leak was that there were hardly any rain.
Canes, bought personally be the teachers, when they visited the Sunday market in village near the Kali temple, were the only facility that every class had. Consequently, the school was very quiet except for the teachers who were huddled together, chatting in the veranda, while the children copied the lessons from their text books for reasons known to no one.
We went through the veranda with the children in the classrooms giggling at us and some of the chubby ones got more than an equal share of that.
Soon after we finished our rounds, we assembled under the shade of a tree on the farther side of the playground, quite a safe distance from a couple of cows that had wandered in from the fields. The children had to be told repeatedly not to bother them. Some of the teachers were still staring at us from the veranda and whispering to each other, probably about the practices which were rumoured to be happening at our school.
Two of the boys came to me and one of them told me how annoying it was to be giggled at by those children. He said that given a chance, he would have shown them.
“Shown them what? These children work hard on the field when they are not in school and before you know what is happening you will end up licking the dust off their feet,’ said the physical education teacher who had overheard him.
I thought it was good for them to hear that the village children were good at something.
“Sir, I have a black belt.”
We sat around under the banyan tree and the school driver, who had brought some water and snacks, started distributing them. The crows on the branches of the banyan tree above started calling their friends at the prospect of food to be shared. We told the children to turn their back to the school while they were eating. No one asked us why. They knew that there would be children staring at them wondering what kind of food came wrapped in aluminium paper.
The snacks were nothing but two loaves of buttered bread and a sachet of chilly tomato sauce. A couple of children who had done a project on environmental issues around human habitation collected the litter, planning to take it back to the school junkyard where they had organized a system of waste management.
“May I have your attention for a minute? OK. Some of you, or most of you, though not all of you, were annoyed, angry in fact, to see the children giggling at you. Well, they giggled at me to and also at my colleagues here. But,just think for a moment. Put yourself in their shoes. I know, they don’t have any shoes.”
I waited for the laughter to subside.
“Now, the fact is you too would have laughed at them, had the situation been reversed, that is, if they had come to our school and walked down our school corridor, peeping into the classrooms. I know that for a fact, so let’s have no argument about that now. However, what I think is, if they had a recess and you had got a chance to mingle with them, greet them, ask their names and shake hands with them, you would have become friends with them in no time.
“I also want you to remember that the food that you eat, no matter how much you had paid for it, comes from them. Now, why would I say that?”
Several hands shot up and then one by one they all voiced the same idea. They are farmers, the caretakers of our mother earth. That was from the first lesson in their moral science text-book.
We also visited a family and interviewed the members about their life style, culture, economy and agriculture. They were very respectful to the children, especially when they found they could speak Oriya.
Two days later, in their culture class, the children shared with their friends the information each group had gathered.
Most of the farmers owned some land. Their monthly budget ranged from five to ten thousand. Almost everyone had a bank account and saved about 10,000 to 70,000 a year which is added to their bank account. They had not yet decided what to do with the savings. Education was cheap since there was a school in the village itself. They don’t have any health hazards and the only way they may spent the money would be to build or buy a new house. Several of them still lived in huts built by their grandparents.
I thought the information didn’t make sense or agree with our concepts. The children also thought that the villagers’ life was not so bad. So I had to explain it to them.
“See, happiness or satisfaction is the way you take your life. These people are happy because they are not exposed to higher life style or luxury. They don’t even bother to buy good clothes or repair their house. As we see, they don’t even know what to do with the money they have. They are able to do so because even though they are poor, they are farmers and they can eat the food they produce. So, the money they spent on food is way too little and this helps them save so much money. In a city slum things would be different. If someone in the village takes the initiative, their saving can be better managed to bring them up to a better life style or a higher financial platform. But, the point is, will that increase their happiness. Ultimately, once the basic needs are met, the question is what can make us happy, now that we are satisfied. In other words, the question is ‘Now what?’”
We have a trans-disciplinary approach in our school and so now the economics teacher explained the difference between economy and life style. The biology teacher continued and told them about the common diseases caused by polluted water and the Eco teacher told them about water shed management. He also showed them some slides about Ralegan Siddhi he had visited a few years ago.
That evening, the economics teacher said to me, “Menon, I didn’t want to contradict you in front of the children. The villagers were bluffing to the children, simply pulling their legs. None of them in the village has a bank account.”
“What? How do you know?”
“I am sure. There was a branch of the State Bank of Orissa in the house behind the post office there, when I joined the school fifteen years ago. Two years after I joined, there was a bad drought, the crops failed, a couple of them died due to starvation, many of them left this place and the bank too closed down. You can’t have a bank account without a bank, I think.”
The children have collected some money to send a New Year Greeting Card to each student in the village school. One of the parents, an industrialist, who happened to read his son’s project on the village has agreed to provide some desks and benches for two of the classes in the village school.
We had some good rains this year. It is still raining. The villagers should be really happy even though everyone’s roof is leaking.